2009-08-06 / Local & State

Is The Air Going Out Of Pa.'s State Budget Battle?


HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) That hissing sound from the Capitol dome might have been the sound of public disapproval.

All in one week, raucous state employees demonstrated on the statehouse steps over their disappearing paychecks, polling showed a dimmer public view of Harrisburg and legislators bickered for two days on television in what had been billed as an attempt to negotiate the budget in public view.

It all seemed to deflate any remaining public patience for the monthlong budget stalemate between Gov. Ed Rendell and state legislators.

"Anyone who has watched it had to reach a conclusion that it's a process gone awry, producing no clear winners,'' said G. Terry Madonna, a professor of public affairs and director of the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.

However, it is not certain whether the Democratic governor and legislators, including Republicans who control the state Senate, are ready to settle on a state spending plan that was due July 1.

They have shed the idea of negotiating in public and are moving to pay tens of thousands of state employees. However, none has shown the willingness, at least publicly, to soften their stance on the question of whether a tax increase is necessary, perhaps indicating another long round of sparring to come.

Few doubt that the dispute has tarnished the reputations of all legislators - as borne out by a recent Quinnipiac University opinion poll - as well as Rendell's.

Yet, Republicans have held an advantage with their no-tax message, even in a game with no winners.

Since at least February, Rendell and his Democratic allies in the Legislature have boxed with Republicans over how to get past Pennsylvania's multibillion-dollar recession-driven deficit.

The stances have shifted as the state's financial situation has worsened, but the general idea remained the same: Democrats have fought for tax increases while Republicans have resisted them.

Certainly, some rank-and-file Republicans have indicated a willingness to increase taxes on the extraction of natural gas or tobacco sales, two ideas advanced by Rendell.

But GOP leaders have not endorsed a tax increase of any kind. Instead, they have seized on Rendell's insistence on an income tax increase, attacking it relentlessly even after he and Democratic leaders tried to emphasize that they were open to other ways of raising new revenue.

Not that Pennsylvanians are overtaxed: A Federation of Tax Administrators analysis of 2006 data showed Pennsylvania's state and local tax burden is below average.

Democrats, however, never mustered an effective counterpunch. They focused on what could result from the spending cuts sought by Republicans - sweeping layoffs, higher local taxes and longer waiting lists for services for the poor, disabled and veterans.

But most voters do not pay attention to that level of detail, and the GOP's crisp no-tax message fell neatly in line with broader concerns driven by national debate on the growing deficit and rising health care costs, Madonna said.

"The argument you hear is, 'We've tightened our belt, why can't the state?''' he said. "I hear that argument an awful lot.''

On Monday, the House is expected to consider legislation that would allow Rendell to pay employees and generally keep government offices and state parks open while negotiations continue. Billions of dollars for schools, hospitals and various human services would remain in limbo

Rendell said a skeleton budget does not remove pressure to make a deal, since counties, school districts and nonprofit agencies where employees are going unpaid are straining to operate without state subsidies.

Not all agree.

David W. Patti, president and CEO of Pennsylvanians for Effective Government - a Harrisburg based business advocacy group that calls for an anti-tax philosophy in state government affairs - said the move buys Rendell more time to press Republicans.

Paying state employees, Patti said, simply exchanges one set of budget hostages for another: Legislators.

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